Classroom Conversation

October 16, 2009 - 1:54 PM

One of the courses I'm teaching this fall is First-Year Preceptorial - a class in which every first year student is enrolled.  Through three texts and a series of films with which everyone engages we consider the major global, economic, political, religious, and cultural questions that our students stand to inherit when they graduate, and explore the way in which the tools supplied by a liberal arts education can help them find the answers they'll need.  There are roughly twenty sections of FP a year, and each faculty member assigns their students other readings specific to their group.  The course aims to strike a balance between building a common experience for first year students, and allowing faculty flexibility in how they teach.

A month ago my FP students read an excerpt from Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture, a 1998 book that explored the dynamics of antagonism in political, economic, and cultural speech.  Tannen spends a great deal of time focused on education, and the adversarial roots of most western systems through which knowledge is imparted, tested, and proved.  My students recognized their education in Tannen's words - recalled the formalized debates they'd been expected to enter into in history class, and the overarching goal of winning, not understanding, as their task.  They remembered English classes where people established themselves as intelligent by savaging authors, and civics courses where articulating the failures of government systems constituted the only meaningful measure of success.

Everyone talked in high school, my students suggested, but no one really listened.  I wondered how to be sure their college experienced would not be more of the same.

My challenge to the students was to come up with a better set of guidelines for the way we'd communicate in our class.  What would be acceptable, as we tried to learn about each other and our world, and what would not?  How would we deal with inflammatory topics and ensure our discussions were just?

This is what they decided:

1) Keep an open mind.

2) Respect each other, and each other's ideas.

3) Be aware of emotional distress, your own and others'.  Know your limits.

4) Be willing to communicate your feelings about the way a discussion is unfolding.

5) Extend the benefit of the doubt to each other.  If someone says something with which you disagree, or that makes you angry and uncomfortable, ask, "Why did you say that?" or something similar.  Don't assume the worst, but do insist that people take responsibility for their words.

6) Don't make assumptions about each other, or why someone holds a given belief.

7) Participate.  Listen; allow time for people to respond; reflect on what others are saying; ask questions; be prepared for class (mentally and physically); find a method of staying engaged that works for you; acknowledge other people as they speak.

8) Don't take things personally.

9) Remember we are all from different places and were raised in different ways.  Value these differences.

10) Remember that discussion is not a competition.

11) Allow expansiveness of discussion.  We are not only interested in "facts" but in theories, ideas, and possibilities.

12) Think before you speak.

13) Don't hold grudges.  Every new class period is a new beginning.

14) What happens in FP stays in FP.  Respect the trust placed in you when others share something difficult or personal, and keep it confidential.

15) Have courage.

A month later and the guidelines are firmly in place in our classroom.  We reference them frequently - especially the last - and my students have not raised their voices (except in warm, well-placed laughter), or shut each other down, or approached discussion as something they might win, or taken offense at another's words.  We've navigated the slings and arrows of Malcolm X, of Kwame Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, of conversation about Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism and Voodoo - and in each instance we've listened, considered other points of view, reflected, and we have into a delightfully messy host of ideas.

My students, in essence, have taught me how to talk.  I'm looking forward to asking my other classes what their guidelines for conversation will be.

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